The Play's the Thing
Ward Just, recently named one of the first recipients of a Berlin Prize Fellowship from the American Academy, is the author of twelve novels. A prolific novelist and journalist, he’s been churning out superior prose—one fine novel after another. His latest offering, Lowell Limpett and Two Stories, continues his steady, consistent stream of first-rate prose. Pitched as “must buy” for collectors of Just’s work, it would be a damn shame if that was the only reason someone bought this book. The play and stories go beyond completing one’s set of Ward Just writing.
According to Ward Just, one day he sat down a novelist and got up a playwright. It wasn’t really that simple. With Lowell Limpett, Ward Just makes it seem that way. The play consists of one act and two scenes, and features only one character on stage. One room, one telephone . . . and the audience. It is “the anonymous year 1995.” Drawing on his career as a journalist, Just makes Limpett’s dialogue both sincere and believable.
Upon reading the opening scene, I am immediately compelled to buy another copy of this book and send it to one of our local newspaper reporters. We’ve got a local daily here, a circulation of about 9,000 copies a day, and there’s this earnest young man, Jonathan, who works for the paper. His writing career path is the opposite of Just’s. Jonathan sat down a playwright and thought he got up a journalist. Sadly for the reading public, journalism takes more skill than Jonathan has to offer. Not that he’s a bad writer, his plays are rather entertaining when performed by the local community theater. But excessive verbiage and an inability to get to the point overshadow any news story he reports.
The first scene:
Standing in his apartment, Limpett points to a framed newspaper articles:
“That’s my first big story, thirty-five years ago. Usual story of municipal corruption; it’s forgotten now. Probably even the principals have forgotten it, even though it was Page One.
“I began with a clean lead, and I guess I better explain what that is…”
Like Dr. Strangelove, I find myself grabbing my cannot-be-controlled hand, trying to stop it from dialing the phone and calling Jonathan so that I can reveal Ward Just’s journalistic truths to the poor playwright who would be a newspaperman. Jonathan needs to learn the definition of a “clean lead.”
“No smoke in your eyes with a clean lead, you look through the words to the facts. You look through the words as you’d look through a pane of glass. Or the bars of a cage to the animals inside. And we don’t use technicolor. Things are in black and white.
“If a clean lead were a god, it’d be Allah, suspended always between heaven and earth.”
(Reading) District Attorney Edward J. Jook charged yesterday that City Treasurer Otto H. Falk concealed an overdraft of $57,000 in city funds. Falk, through his lawyers, denied the charge.”
“That was my lead.
Two straight declarative sentences. No adjectives. No passive constructions. Twenty-six words. No word over nine letters. Tight as a drum, built on historical principles: First the accusation, then the denial. Two sentences because they’re separate events.
Nothing fancy . . . .”
Ward Just defines journalism in one act, two scenes. Reading Lowell Limpett is more than reading the story of a man’s life; it’s a primer for digesting the news spewing forth from our nation’s talking heads. Just takes us through the early days of a newspaper reporter to the end of a career. It is an elegant, succinct masterpiece. It should be required reading for all high school seniors, regardless of their intended career paths. Few things in life are as certain as the fact that, at some point in time, everyone will watch or read the news. Put this book on the reading list next to Twelve Angry Men. Both plays describe processes which need to be understood.
Two stories, one a novella, complete the book. Just wrote them in the 1970s, and neither suffers from lack of timeliness. “Wasps”, a short story, details the life of a political couple in Washington, DC. Melanie, the wife, believes in “. . . hard work and keeping your word, rewarding your friends and ignoring your enemies. She thought that her husband was a good man and a very good politician, being both extroverted and audacious. Of course she was neither.” Her husband, Eric, is a Congressman. Ambitious, a rising star, he counts on Melanie’s astute instinct for the political landscape to help him steer his course in public life. The title, “Wasps”, refers to the insect, not white Anglo-Saxon protestants. Melanie was stung, as a young child, and her allergic reaction was near-fatal.
“She came to believe that in some specific way the wasp’s sting and the coma that followed had transformed her nature, from free spirit to fatalist.”
The story is about holding on to one’s sense of self despite the distractions of Washington. The premise of self-loss, true in the 1970s, remains glaringly obvious in 2001. Meg Greenfield (author of the marvelous book Washington, published posthumously, reviewed in PopMatters) would probably be shaking Ward Just’s hand right now, if she were only around to do so.
The novella Born in His Time, also set in Washington DC, contains the subtle tale of a young lawyer assigned a high-profile no-win case. Born, the attorney, takes a slow journey, descending on a philosophical down ramp into the abyss of believing the unbelievable. The illusion of success—in rising above a political quagmire and prevailing in a case predetermined to be lost—destroys Born.
The novella does not chronicle the progress of the case as a courtroom drama. The legal battles referred to in the story provide a background for the dialogue as the firm’s attorneys speak of political jurisprudence, the wrangling and the deals, inner-office dialogues, subterfuge, and the eventual demise of Born, the attorney.
Just travels from first person to omniscient narrator, telling Born’s tale from all sides. I stumbled a couple times with this . . . had one of those Cormac McCarthy “who the hell is speaking” moments. But I recovered and realized the switch and kept going. The voice shift didn’t bog down the story; it made me pay attention. The senior partner, Weiss, hired Born and narrates the story and introduces the reader to Born. The novella then goes back and forth, vascilating between Weiss the man and the omniscient narrator, giving both Born’s thoughts and Weiss’s and back to first person. Effective writing, entertaining and compelling, Just exhibits an uncanny ability to put the reader into the head of all the characters.
PublicAffairs books rarely disappoint and always entertain. It’s comforting to be able to review Lowell Limpett and Two Stories and find the book lives up to their usual standards.